Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
Temple of Bel
Surviving Centuries and Demolished in One Day
There are images of some ruins that got imprinted in my mind as a child. The most prominent among them was the half-destroyed dome of Hiroshima. For me, this monument embodied the cruelest of all deaths, that is, by the fire-mushroom that we see in a nuclear explosion. Indeed, this building- skeleton also reminded me of the defeat of Hitler, and the fall of Nazism. It is strange how an interplay of politics and human empathy surrounds one’s mental geography when it comes to this building. As I grew up, this image also evolved to symbolize war, nuclear threat, and human tragedy. My mind had learned to make the entire topic broader and more abstract. The French philosopher, Guiles Deleuze has theorized about how the visual imagery of post-world war 2 was impacted by the ruins of war - demolished and abandoned buildings, and the scars on the civilization.
From the colossal library in Alexandria of the ancient times to entire cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the Bamiyan Buddhas of present-day Afghanistan, the loss of monuments and buildings culturally invaluable to humanity, transpires in all the small and big wars we fight. The ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria, was a recent casualty, and actually the saddest of all. Syria is the cradle of our civilization, and Palmyra a trading hub of ancient times, as it lies just along the silk road used by Romans, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Egyptians, Turks, and many other African, Asian and European people to take goods from one continent to another. In 2013, ISIS wrecked this city in a devastating attack and left nothing but rubbles of this architectural marvel. The fighting resulted in ISIS taking control of large areas of Iraq and Syria. The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, the abode of pagan gods of 1st century CE, had been more than 2000 years old and a well-known tourist attraction. This Greco-Roman monument cluster that also is marked by Persian artisanship, was razed to the ground in 2015. These monuments are not the same as the dome of Hiroshima. They were destroyed by war while the dome was in a sense, created by war. It is a memorial of war for the generations that followed.
The crisscrossing paths of the silk road across the Taklamakan desert, the Hindu Kush mountains, and the Mediterranean was a confluence of goods, ideas, scholars, politics, innovations, and history in motion. Palmyra was a pivotal township of this confluence of cultures. Iraq and Syria were also home to one of the earliest civilizations in the history of humankind, the Mesopotamian civilization. Even before that, this was the living grounds of the Neanderthals, and the still unraveling history of this region dates back to 80000 BCE. When ISIS arrived, many archaeologists were still studying this region to get a better insight into human evolution and one prominent scientist among them was Khalid-al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist. In 2015, this 82-year old veteran scholar was beheaded by ISIS for not revealing to them the location of the artifacts removed just before the war broke out, for safekeeping. They hung his mutilated and headless body from a column in Palmyra. The sacrifice of this great man saved a few if not all invaluable gems of history from being destroyed. Maybe his brutal death was a reminder of the inimitable cost of war. Both the image of his body hanging from a column and the picture of the destruction of Palmyra leaves one shocked also because we are a civilization that values its history and its truth-seekers.
Palmyra Before Destruction
Faith Can Be Fatal; Ideologies Can Destroy the World
ISIS itself released a video of how they blasted this city into debris and dust. Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra also met with the same fate. The terrorist group attacked and looted the Mosul Museum of Iraq. They believed that by destroying the monuments belonging to the early period of Islam, they were rebelling against idol worship and protecting a pure kind of Islam as interpreted by them. All this religious fanaticism did not stop them from looting the invaluable artifacts from these monuments and selling them in the black market to make money and fight this so-called holy war.
Aleppo was another historic place in Syria, remembered as the “Vienna of the Middle East”. It lies in a strategic trading position, equal in proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River. It is one of the cities in history that were continuously dwelled upon by humans for centuries and beyond. The place stands completely destroyed. What remains of these places are videos and photographs that would evoke a strong sense of loss in the minds of even a disinterested onlooker. This is the end of a place that has never once ceased to exist, to breathe, and to throb with its multicultural human population, at least for the last 5000 years.
The collective human mind works in many curious ways. Mass hysteria is capable of bringing out the worst in us. Religious and political ideologies can often shroud and deny their own purpose of origin and make people act in diametrically opposite ways to the original ideas and concepts. The Spanish inquisition showed that people could practice unspeakable cruelties upon fellow human beings in the name of Christianity, a religion that emerged from the words of Jesus, who was the personification of kindness and tolerance. The war on terror eventually revealed to us the shameful and saddening pictures of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘Guantanamo’. In Afghanistan, by the time the Taliban destroyed the ancient Bamiyan Buddha statues, they had silenced all the voices of gender equality and democracy and enslaved the entire female folk of the country into the existence of domestic slavery.
Ancient Library of Alexandria
The ancient library of Alexandria was one of the earliest known demolitions caused by war. The Egyptian king, Ptolemy I, and his advisor, Demetrius of Phaleron oversaw the establishment of the ancient library of Alexandria in the 4th century BCE. The Ptolemy kings for generations collected books for this library, buying, borrowing, copying and even forging rare manuscripts. It was actually a twin library, one part being called the royal library and the other, the daughter library. It is estimated that the library had about half a million books stored in it. When Julius Caesar came to Alexandria to help Cleopatra fight her brother Ptolemy XIII, he set fire to the enemy’s fleet. The fire spread and destroyed the royal library. In 391 BCE, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I entrusted Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, to destroy all the pagan monuments and temples of the city. This marked the end of the daughter library that was situated inside a temple complex.
The Bamiyan Buddhas
Bamiyan in Afghanistan, along the Hindu Kush mountains, was home to the world’s tallest Buddha statues. The Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up using bombs by the Taliban in 2001 as they were fighting to establish their version of Islamic rule in Afghanistan. These statues were from the 6th century CE. The celebrated Chinese traveler, Xuanzang had introduced Bamiyan to the world as a teeming hub of Buddhism and given a vivid picture of the place as an abode of thousands of Buddhist monks. The Buddha statues were a unique mix of Roman, Indian (Gupta period), and ancient Iranian architecture.
Before organized religions took roots, every city, every monument, was a crucible of cultures, a vase holding these cultures in a beautiful bouquet of many colors. This is the shared culture that all of us must inherit irrespective of to what region or religion we belong. Maybe these ruined cities have more resilience than we humans have. They have seen many conquerors and many wars. They have been through the test of fire and blood many times in history and they will rise again. However, the loss of the monuments situated in them would create many knowledge gaps in our understanding of history and in our ability to cope in the future.
The Dome of Hiroshima
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
When the allied forces attacked Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki using atom bombs, in World War II, about 200000 people died instantaneously. Thousands more met with gradual death out of radiation exposure. Hiroshima also became a funeral ground of about 60000 of its 90000 buildings. The Genbaku dome that survived the bombing in Hiroshima is preserved as such and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. London, Berlin, Tokyo, and Atlanta, also faced a similar fate, though far less devastating, at different times during the war. Many of these cities have preserved parts of their war ruins to remind us of history and the costs of war.
The Georgian capital Armazi was destroyed in 713 CE by Arab forces. The city was so ravaged that it was abandoned thereon. In 1221, the Red City of Afghanistan was attacked and demolished by Genghis Khan. Entire cities have also been preserved as such as war memorials. Belchite in Spain and Oradour-sur-Glane of France are examples. After destroyed by Hitler’s army, Warsaw was rebuilt exactly the same way as it looked before the destruction. These are the many ways we, as a civilization, try to heal ourselves.
Where are the World’s Most War-Damaged Cities? By Adrian Mourby, The Guardian, 2015.
Here are the Ancient Sites ISIS has Damaged and Destroyed. By Andrew Curry, nationalgeographic.com. 2015.
Library of Alexandria, encyclopedia.com
Palmyra’s Temple of Bel Destroyed, Says UN, bbc.com, 2015.
The Man Who Helped Blow Up the Bamiyan Buddhas. By Nazir Behsad and Daud Quarizadah. bbc.com, 2015.
Explained: The Legacy and Return of the Bamiyan Buddhas, virtually. By Benita Fernando. indianexpress.com, 2021.
Beheaded Syrian Scholar Refused to Lead ISIS to Hidden Palmyra Antiquities. By Kareem Shaheen. The Guardian. 2015.
© 2021 Deepa
Deepa (author) from India on June 05, 2021:
Thank you Rawan Osama.
Rawan Osama from Egypt on June 05, 2021:
Deepa (author) from India on June 05, 2021:
I too am touched Vanitha Thakkar by your whole-hearted appreciation of this article. We can only hope that we are becoming a wiser and more peace-loving species as our civilization progresses. Thinkers like Steven Pinker have collated data, analyzed them meticulously, and observed so, based on facts. So, let us dream of a world where war is a very distant memory in the past.
Vanita Thakkar on June 05, 2021:
A very informative and touchy article. The facts brought forth give unattended and unfollowed lessons of the most ruthless destruction caused by blind, crazy and cruel violence under whatever weird reasons people chose to link it with.
The thirst of violence seems to be so disgustingly unquenchable, so much beyond the reaches of all the efforts towards love and peace !!